Kathi Camilleri is Irish on her father’s side.
She was raised to be proud of those roots.
She grew up proudly decking herself out in green every St. Patrick’s Day.
Her mother’s heritage, however, wasn’t something they talked about. Although clearly an Indiginous woman, her mother didn’t talk about her ancestry. She didn’t openly identify as Aboriginal. She felt it was better that way.
She was ashamed of her lineage and knew it would be an easier life for her and her family if she left it behind.
But when Camilleri decided to start looking into her past on her mother’s side, it became very clear, very quickly, that there was nothing to be ashamed of.
“It saddens me that my mother was made to feel ashamed of being an Aboriginal woman with a proud lineage,” Camilleri says. “The shame my mother walked with that had caused her to deny her heritage was because of this country’s colonial past. Its policy of assimilation had caused many to go underground with regard to their true identities, but once I knew the truth about my cultural identity and how my mother’s family came to be ashamed of their ancestral lineage, I consciously let go of that shame.”
Elders led a “letting go” ceremony for Camilleri and she was brushed with boughs of cedar. They welcomed her back to who she really was.
“That changed my life,” she says. “When I introduce myself now, I say, ‘I am Kathi Hemphill Camilleri.’ We should all be proud of our ancestors. No one should be ashamed of theirs.”
That day was the start of a new life journey, she says.
That was the day she began making it her life’s work to talk about reconciliation – long before the word was commonplace in the conversation of everyday Canadians.
That was over two decades before it was rolled into the collective vernacular of our culture, as it has been over the past few years since the Truth and Reconciliation Commission issued its report.
That report reads, in part, “For over a century, the central goals of Canada’s Aboriginal policy were to eliminate Aboriginal governments; ignore Aboriginal rights; terminate the Treaties; and, through a process of assimilation, cause Aboriginal peoples to cease to exist as distinct legal, social, cultural, religious and racial entities in Canada,” and called the government’s actions, “cultural genocide.”
Well before that report was issued, Camilleri created a workshop entitled Building Bridges Through Understanding the Village®.
It’s an experiential workshop for anyone who wants to better understand the Canadian history of the relationship between Indiginous peoples and those who came later. When she first started doing it 25 years ago, “nobody wanted to talk about it because of the trauma associated with it.”
In some ways, they still don’t. But they are starting to.
It’s a painful narrative, but it’s important to know, Camilleri says, if we are going to move forward as a country.
The workshop starts by taking some time to “build safety,” she says, “making sure that everybody knows that nobody is going to be blamed or shamed and so that everyone understands that this is a coming together so that people understand what we’re even reconciling.”
Then there’s the first of three sections.
“The first part is where we go back in time and pretend to be First Nations people pre-contact, building a village together,” Camilleri says. “We talk about what it’s like to live in a village system, which was a brilliant way of life. It worked very well. We looked after each other.”
That’s the happy part.
After a short break, the participants reconvene and gather back in the village. Camilleri then puts on a red hat and becomes “the colonizer.”
“I let them get to know the colonizer and see that the colonizer isn’t a bad person,” she says. “This isn’t about good people and bad people. This is about a people that were colonized themselves and saw a great opportunity to come to this county and improve their own situation, as well.”
But then disease strikes the village. Somewhere between 50 and 90 per cent of the village is wiped out by disease.
“And so the colonizer decides it is in everyone’s best interest to assimilate them. I take away their identity; I take away the things that make them who they are.”
Then she takes their children off to residential school.
Then she puts alcohol into the room.
They talk about trauma and what it did to some of the villages and communities. They talk about self-medicating.
“Then I put my red hat back on and do the 60s Scoop – another wave of trauma.”
In part three, the kids come out of Residential School and return to their broken communities.
“And I ask the people to fix it. And people, every time, come up with brilliant ideas.”
Which is good. It’s brilliant ideas we need to move forward.
A shortened version of the normally day-long workshop will be happening Saturday, March 24 at the Museum at Campbell River during an event called Paddling Together Toward Reconcilliation.
The event is a partnership between the museum and the Campbell River Arts Council, and anyone interested is invited to attend, though pre-registration is required by calling 250-287-3103 or by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org
From the workshop, the event moves into a Community Circle event with elders, Aboriginal people, non-Aboriginal people and members of the local arts community to look at ways we can all work together to move forward as a community.
Camilleri wants everyone to know, if they are hesitant to be involved – for any reason – that this is a welcoming event and there will be counselling available on the day should anyone need it.
Whether you are Aboriginal or not, she says, there’s no reason not to let go of your burden and start healing.
“It’s not your shame to carry,” she says. “It’s time to move forward. And we need to do it together.”